Toronto has a Marc Gasol problem. Yes, it is a journalistic faux pas to begin an article by stealing the title from an old blog. Yes, I had to google how to spell faux pas and it took me longer than I’d like to admit. Nevertheless, none of this takes away from the impressive Celtics win on Monday night.
The #NBATwitter narrative on Gasol has been interesting to monitor throughout this series. After the first two contests Raptors and Celtics pundits alike were suggesting that Gasol was Toronto’s weak link. Then, after a pair of wins, Raptors media figures were touting plus/minus stats as evidence that Gasol was a positive contributor. Game Five, however, may have solidified his status as an overall negative player for Toronto this series.
Boston made a concerted effort all game to attack Gasol. They did so on drag screens, traditional pick-and-rolls and even during Nick Nurse’ patented zone defenses. The tape best demonstrates how the Celtics were able to do so.
Hammering The Drop Coverage
Given his limited, declining foot speed, the Raptors instructed Gasol to engage in drop coverage during screens. This surrenders a midrange opportunity for Boston shooters like Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Plus, a rescreen technique can allow for those same shooters to get all the way to the rim for an easier look.
How did Boston perform against this coverage during Game Five? Pretty well. Specifically, they were able to get off clean looks. While those shots did not always fall, they are ones that Boston fans want to see. Brown, Walker, Tatum and Marcus Smart will convert those midrange twos at a rate that punishes Toronto.
By using deceleration or snake moves, Boston shot-creators are able to maneuver around their (likely shorter) defenders during pick-and-rolls. Once completed, all that is left to do is rise for a lightly contested jumper over the backpedaling Gasol. If the shot isn’t there then the ball can be kicked out to whichever floor spacer was abandoned to help on defense.
Do not be discouraged by the misses in the clip above. Boston generated open looks against one of the game’s stingiest defenses. Brown can hit that pull-up in the lane. Smart can make catch-and-shoot triples at a reasonable rate. And of course, we all know that Kemba is gonna Kemba. So how else did the Cs target Gasol?
When Gasol Doesn’t Drop…
Boston found themselves able to exploit when Gasol switched or hedged onto a ball handler. Despite the limited success during drop coverage, tasking the Spaniard with sticking to speedier players seems like a poor strategy. The Celtics capitalzed early and often on these sets.
Gasol’s switches or stunts aren’t terribly effective due to his inability to fully commit to them. Plus, the Celtics were able to drive on him, causing help defenders to rotate over. This opened up shooters or cutters, with the Smart dunk as a prime example. Additionally, Toronto does not want to give up uncontested pull-up 3-pointers to guys like Walker or Tatum. What’s more, Gasol also struggled against a different type of screen set.
Drag (Double) Screens
Boston relies on drag screens because it gives their handlers the autonomy to maximize on what the defense presents them. To boot, it often causes defensive movement and therefore, confusion. Watch how the Celtics set high drag screens to open up the court.
These sets often give the ball handler a full head of steam to attack the hoop. Despite being undersized, Walker got two easy layups while driving past Gasol. To prove how efficient this set can be, I also threw in an example of it being used against the quicker Serge Ibaka. Do not be surprised to see this set called more often during Game Six. Brad Stevens may rely on the shot-creation of his stars to put away the series.
Targeting Gasol During Zones
Although Boston did a great job at attacking Gasol, there is still some meat left on the bone. In particular, the Celtics can take advantage of the way in which Nurse uses Gasol during zone defense. Gasol occupies the lower, left block area on the zone as Nurse opts to have the lengthy, more agile OG Anunoby command the anchor spot.
This allocation of players reveals Nurse’s concern about Gasol’s rim protection. Yet, the center’s lack of lateral quickness is not so easy to hide. Boston overloaded one side of the zone to not only draw Gasol to the perimeter but, ensure that a ball handler can have an isolation chance against him. The Cs must do a better job of scoring on these play calls.
For instance, in the clip below you’ll see Smart cut across the same lane that Tatum wants to drive down. This dragged the help defense over and consequently undid the advantage Tatum had on Gasol. Smart must stay home or get to the opposite corner before Tatum begins his drive. In the second play in the clip, Daniel Theis mans one of the corners. Having a better shooter in that spot could truly punish Toronto, although Boston was able to score regardless.
With their backs against the wall, do not be shocked to see Gasol play single digit minutes in Game Six. Boston will find success when singling him out on defense. Their ball movement was noticeably sharp last night and will likely continue to be so. A shorter leash on Gasol means more minutes for Serge Ibaka (if healthy, a big if) and perhaps some other surprise role players.
BONUS: Check out Zach Wilson and myself talk in-depth about the Raptors-Celtics series on our latest podcast featuring Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm!